The Arizona Diamondbacks are keeping it simple. Their philosophy of winning
is not at all complicated. It isn’t predicated on some strange brand of
aggressive baserunning, or a managerial zeal for sound fundamentals, or the
ticking-time-bomb brand of big-inning baseball practiced by the Oakland A’s.
No, the Diamondbacks’ theory on winning is this: hand the ball to Randy
Johnson or Curt Schilling. Say hello to win column. Repeat as
often as possible.
Ever since Gerry Hern wrote a little ditty about Warren Spahn and
Johnny Sain back in 1948, there has been a romantic quality
associated with the plight of a team seeking greatness on the backs of two
great starters. "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" inspired a
nauseating number of copycat rhymes, all seeking to distill the essence of a
team into a pair of pitchers.
But while "Johnson and Schilling and then God willing" may not
match Hern’s line in terms of wit, it surpasses it in terms of accuracy. Few
teams in baseball history–if any–have relied so heavily on two starting
pitchers to reach the postseason.
And having reached the postseason, where the combination of extra days off
and the life-or-death nature of every game make fourth and fifth starters
more a luxury than a necessity, the Diamondbacks are free to ride Johnson
and Schilling even more. Arizona has gone 2-2 in the playoffs when pitchers
other than their two aces start, but thanks to three dominant performances
by the Big Unit and four consecutive victories–three of them complete
games–by Schilling, the Diamondbacks are up 2-0 in the World Series.
The question is this: has any playoff team been so reliant on their top two
starters as these Diamondbacks are? And having carried the D’backs this far,
can Johnson and Schilling finish the job and pull the team all the way to
The first question is easier to answer than the second one. By almost any
reasonable measure, Johnson and Schilling were the two best starting
pitchers in the major leagues this year. They ranked first and second in the
majors in ERA, innings pitched, and strikeouts, and they ranked first and
third in wins. They will almost certainly finish 1-2 in the Cy Young vote
for the National League this year, becoming the first set of teammates to do
so since Don Newcombe and Sal Maglie did so for the 1956
Dodgers, the year the Cy Young Award was first presented.
Prior to 1956, though, such an occurrence wasn’t nearly so unusual. The two
highest-ranking pitchers in the MVP award voting hailed from the same team
nine times. It even happened to the same pair of teammates in back-to-back
years; Bucky Walters and Paul Derringer were the two best
pitchers in the NL in 1939 and again in 1940, helping to lead the Reds to a
pair of pennants and a World Series title.
But even Walters and Derringer, as good as they were, didn’t do it alone.
The Reds had a pair of 13-game winners on the staff in 1939; the following
year, their #3 and #4 starters won 16 and 14 games respectively. Not so the
Diamondbacks, whose #3 starter by default, the bookish Miguel
Batista, won 11 games all season and pitched out of the bullpen for part
of the year. No one else on the pitching staff won more than six games. Even
Spahn and Sain had Vern Bickford, who won 46 games over a three-year
span, as a teammate. Johnson and Schilling have nobody.
Against that background, the work of Johnson and Schilling stands out in an
even bolder relief. Johnson went 21-6 for the Diamondbacks this season,
finishing second in the league in winning percentage–to Schilling, who
finished 22-6. Together, they won 43 games and lost 12, for a .781 winning
percentage. The Diamondbacks, as a team, finished just 92-70 (.556)–meaning
that their pitchers, aside from their two aces, compiled a measly 49-58
The difference between the Johnson/Schilling combo and the rest of the
team–323 points of winning percentage–is the third greatest by any playoff
team in history. Amazingly, it’s not even the greatest of Randy Johnson’s
Year Team Aces Record Rest of Team Diff Overall
1997 SEA Johnson, Moyer 37-9 (.804) 53-63 (.457) .347 90-72 1940 DET Newson, Rowe 37-8 (.822) 53-56 (.486) .336 90-64 2001 ARZ Schilling, Johnson 43-12 (.781) 49-58 (.458) .323 92-70 1985 LAN Hershiser, Welch 33-7 (.825) 62-60 (.508) .317 95-67 1990 BOS Clemens, Boddicker 38-14 (.731) 50-60 (.454) .276 88-74
As you can see, the Big Unit has had plenty of practice when it comes to
carrying a playoff team to the postseason on his (and a friend’s) shoulders.
Now, maybe winning percentage isn’t a fair way of looking at the issue,
because over the course of a single season it’s possible that a team might
score a disproportionate number of their runs with one or two starters on
the mound. For example, neither Hershiser nor Welch was the ace of the
Dodgers’ staff in 1985; Fernando Valenzuela was. But the Dodgers gave
Valenzuela relatively few runs with which to work, while scoring runs by the
bucketful with his comrades on the mound. Ditto the 1940 Tigers:
Schoolboy Rowe was actually the team’s third starter when he wasn’t
carrying his backpack to class, but lucked his way into a 16-3 record
despite a higher ERA than #2 starter Tommy Bridges.
So let’s look at this another way. Schilling and Johnson combined to throw
more than 500 innings this year, and together posted a 2.74 ERA. (By
comparison, no other starting pitcher in the major leagues had an ERA under
3.00) The rest of the Diamondbacks’ staff finished with a 4.47 ERA, which
would have ranked 11th in the NL. With their two aces pulling the train, the
D’backs actually finished second.
The combined ERA of the two was 1.73 runs better than the rest of their
team, a margin that once again ranks among the largest ever for a playoff
Year Team Aces ERA Rest of Team Diff Overall
1997 SEA Johnson, Fassero 2.98 5.61 2.63 4.79 1997 SEA Johnson, Moyer 3.03 5.47 2.45 4.79 1987 MIN Viola, Blyleven 3.47 5.29 1.82 4.63 2001 ARZ Schilling, Johnson 2.74 4.47 1.73 3.87 1930 PHA Grove, Shores 3.12 4.85 1.73 4.28
The 1987 Twins are brought up in any discussion of flawed playoff teams, and
rightfully so. The Twins won their division despite an 85-77 record; only
the 1973 Mets made the playoffs with a worse record. Yet the Twins were led
by a pair of All-Star pitchers, and the similarity to the 2001 Diamondbacks
is striking. Frank Viola, like Johnson, was perhaps the best
left-hander in the majors, and Bert Blyleven, like Schilling, was a
right-hander who led the league in homers allowed.
The Twins’ third starter was a guy named Les Straker, which should
tell you all you need to know about the rest of their pitchers. Aside from
Viola and Blyleven, the Twins were about as intimidating as Derek Zoolander.
But with their two best pitchers starting on three days’ rest in the
playoffs, the Twins shocked the Detroit Tigers in five games in the ALCS,
then squeaked past the Cardinals in seven games to win the World Series.
The Twins won only one game not started by Viola or Blyleven, but that was
all they would need: Viola and Blyleven combined to start nine of the Twins’
12 postseason games, and went 7-2.
Before Diamondbacks fans get all warm and fuzzy, though, there are the 1997
Mariners to consider. The Mariners weren’t supported by two great pitchers,
but three: behind Johnson, who went an ungodly 20-4 with a 2.28 ERA, both
Jamie Moyer (17-5, 3.86) and Jeff Fassero (16-9, 3.61) had
terrific seasons. The rest of the pitching staff was brutal, combining to go
27-54 with an ERA above 6.00. The team’s ostensible closer, Norm
Charlton, had a 7.27 ERA, and everyone knows it’s bad luck when your
closer has the ERA of a Boeing.
Still, with a sure-fire Hall of Famer and a pair of wily veterans to back
him up, it didn’t look like their other pitchers would cost the Mariners in
the postseason, because they wouldn’t even need them. But a funny thing
happened on the way to the World Series: the Mariners were quickly disposed
of by the Orioles in the first round. The blame fell squarely on the three
pitchers of whom so much was expected, particularly the Big Unit, who twice
lost to Mike Mussina.
So, to answer the second question: there is certainly precedent in
baseball’s past for a pair of great pitchers to lead an otherwise
unremarkable team to a championship. And if Johnson flirts with another
no-hitter and Schilling continues to perform an uncanny imitation of
Christy Mathewson, it might just happen. But they better continue to
pitch as if they don’t expect to get any help from their teammates, because
it doesn’t look like they will.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
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